‘The only way to write a successful love story is to write the story that you know’
It’s been a little over a year since Call Me By Your Name was released in cinemas, and we’ll be honest – we’re pretty much still recovering. The closing moment, as Elio sits in front of the fire with tears streaming down his face, lamenting the end of his tumultuous affair with Oliver, is likely as etched into your memory as it is ours.
For those who picked up André Aciman’s bestselling novel, though – either before the film adaptation was released, or afterwards, in a bid to uncover more on its compelling and entirely human protagonists – will know that, in paper form, the story is even more gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking.
Aciman has a finely-tuned but totally natural talent for tapping into the longing, passion, and loss that most of us have felt at some point in our lives, weaving passages of words that leave the reader both yearning for more and simultaneously wishing it would all. just. stop. In short, each of his novels is an emotional rollercoaster – and newly-released book Enigma Variations is no different.
Following the story of one man’s journey through life and the relationships he forges (or fails to forge) along the way, Enigma Variations is broken down into five tales of desire, love and, ultimately, the pain that inevitably comes from all of that. Spanning decades and continents, and with no linear narrative, the story jumps from tiny Greek islands to New York City, from men to women (refreshingly, with little fanfare), and from past to present, as Aciman pieces together a rich tapestry of human emotion in a way few other contemporary writers can match.
With that in mind, and to celebrate the release of Enigma Variations, we sat down with Aciman and asked him how to go about writing a successful love story. Thank us when you're collecting your Man Booker, okay?
TAKE IT SLOW
André Aciman: “I never wanted to become a writer, I just always was a writer. When I was younger my father wanted me to take over his business in Egypt, where I grew up, but in my heart of hearts I didn’t understand anything about business. My whole adolescence was coloured by the fact that one day I would write, and I always wrote, even when I was a student and I had jobs on the side I kept writing. It took me until I was almost 38 years old to have the guts to begin publishing, and my first book wasn’t released until I was 43. So, if you’re ready to get going when you’re young, then great. But if it takes you a little longer to find your feet, then that’s okay too.”
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
André Aciman: “The only way to write a successful love story is to write the story that you know. That’s not to say your story needs to have played out in your own life, but if you really try to tap into emotions you might have felt and get to grips with them, you’ll be much better equipped to write about them beautifully.”
“There are two moments that are the most important in any love story, I think – the moment one person reaches out, and the moment the other reciprocates” – André Aciman
LET THE READER USE THEIR IMAGINATION
André Aciman: “I never describe the character’s physicality in my books. In other words, I will never tell you what kind of face the character has, what kind of moustache, what colour eyes they have, their nose, their voice… I’m much more interested – as both a writer and a reader – in the energy that a character conveys, their power, their force, their attraction. Most of my stories begin with the voice of a character saying a couple of words or just one word, because I think that one word can often capture a whole range of emotions, and their essence, basically.”
DON’T SPELL IT OUT
André Aciman: “There are two moments that are the most important in any love story, I think – the moment one person reaches out, and the moment the other reciprocates. There’s a lot of self-doubt when you make that first move, even a harmless gesture like taking hold of someone’s hand is a very powerful moment, because it’s crossing boundaries and that’s difficult. But the hesitation and the longing for the touch of the hand, that’s what I want to know about – describing the moment does nothing for me. You know: ‘John held Mary’s hand and he was ecstatic at the touch’ and so on. What means something to me is what’s going on in their head, like ‘how do I hold her hand, or his hand, how should I reach out? Will they be shocked? Will they pull away? What do I do if they pull away?’ It’s so human.”
“For me, it’s all about suggestion. I never use the word ‘love’ in my stories, because I think it’s a very obvious term and once you use it, it sort of gels everything together so there’s no ambiguity, no sense of longing and loss left” – André Aciman
GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT
André Aciman: “There are moments when something happens in a story I’m writing that I haven’t planned and I find myself being steered in a particular direction which I never foresaw. When that happens, I try not to worry too much about where things were supposed to be going and just go with it.”
DON’T MENTION LOVE (NO, REALLY)
André Aciman: “For me, it’s all about suggestion. I never use the word ‘love’ in my stories, because I think it’s a very obvious term and once you use it, it sort of gels everything together so there’s no ambiguity, no sense of longing and loss left. When you’re in love, it’s a dimension that’s totally amorphous, just like our entire emotional life is. Everything that we feel can shift within seconds of being felt, and to just label love as ‘love’ doesn’t convey everything it is. I love tracing the trajectory of emotions that are constantly shifting.”
DON’T PUT LABELS ON YOUR CHARACTERS
André Aciman: “I’m not interested in labels. You feel something for someone before you realise that you are a man or a woman, or whether this other person is a man or a woman, you can just be drawn to someone, you know? It’s only a split second later that you say, ‘oh my God, I’m a man and I’m attracted to a man, is this okay? Is this not okay?’ I’m not questioning who’s attracted to who, I’m more interested in the immediacy of the encounter, how do you feel? Many writers will try to give you some kind of background as to why someone feels an attraction for one sex or another sex, and the dangers and difficulties that come from that, but I skip over these details. I only care about the ways characters like Elio and Paul gauge their own desires, and the way they look inside themselves and try to understand the inside of someone else.”
André Aciman's Enigma Variations is published by Faber.